General Colin Powell, the first black American to command the US armed forces and by far the most popular figure in public life here, has decided not to seek the White House in 1996, according to close political associates.
Gen Powell, 58, was scheduled to make his announcement yesterday afternoon at a hotel in suburban Washington, ending months of speculation which had frozen the contest for the Republican nomination while he made up his mind.
In the end the decision has come more quickly than expected, and prompted in part, it is widely believed, by the weekend assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel - an event that only underscored the fears of Alma Powell of an attempt on the life of her husband were he to try to become the first black president in US history.
Although the Powell camp had maintained a Sphinx-like silence on his intentions, signs mounted in the last few days that the fortnight-long retreat after the conclusion of his hugely successful book tour would produce a decision not to enter the race.
Addressing a business convention in Philadelphia on Tuesday, Gen Powell spoke only vaguely of his future, saying that "there is a role for each and every one of us to play...and I am searching for the role I should play." Moreover, as his self-imposed deadline of Thanksgiving Day on 23 November drew nearer, he had given no sign of starting to put in place the national organisation essential for a presidential run.
The withdrawal of Gen Powell leaves Bob Dole, the Senate majority leader, an even firmer favourite for the Republican nomination. Even with Gen Powell in the field, Mr Dole was slightly the preferred choice of registered Republicans.
Yesterday Mr Dole, in New Hampshire to receive the prized endorsement of Governor Stephen Merrill ahead of the state's all-important primary on 20 February, was guarded in his reaction - perhaps seeking to keep the door open to picking Gen Powell as his vice-presidential running mate, a move that could ensure him the White House.
Unusually silent too was the House Speaker, Newt Gingrich, who has refused to rule out a White House bid of his own next year, even though he admits it is unlikely. But despite polls showing he would be trounced by Mr Clinton, and would be unlikely to win the Republican nomination, many quarters of the party's influential ideological right wing are pressing Mr Gingrich to stand.
The non-candidacy of Gen Powell also gives new hope to several minor candidates. For all Mr Dole's lead, doubts persist about his age (he would be 73 on taking office).
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